Have I ruined my career

Financial independence, it is a huge privilege for some of us, and an inspiring dream for others.  It is the bedrock principle for this community whether you are a frugalista, a tiny houser, a blogger extraordinaire, an investing guru, a minimalist extreme or a side gigging entrepreneur.  In a close knit but diverse community like ours it comes close to being the one unifying theory that everyone holds to. It is the concept that by living on less than you earn you can reach a point where you do not have to work a full time job to meet all of your material needs.  After that we all go in different directions.  Some advocate living on $10 per day in some remote part of the world, some live with few possessions and enjoy the simplicity and freedom that brings them, some hustle for small or large fortunes as they build internet empires and a few play that corporate game so well they can walk away early to a life of volunteering or travel.  Finally, a few do not ever intend to retire but enjoy knowing they can.


That last group was me.  If you had asked me ten years ago when I was going to retire I would have told you without hesitation that I planned on working into my seventies.  And I meant it, work was one of my favorite hobbies and I had a high-profile job that stroked my ego and left me feeling very good about myself most of the time (I realize that sounds pretty shallow but I’m being honest here).  At that time, ten years ago, I was already financially independent but I did not comprehend what that meant and had never run the numbers or even given the idea a thought.  I had never read a blog on early retirement or on financial independence and in my mind retirement was just what you did when you could no longer contribute in a career.  It was a type of personal failure only a few steps short of death or incarceration in a nursing home.  Crazy, right?  I know, that sounds insane to me now, but I clearly remember thinking those thoughts.


And I also know what you are thinking, “You are such a typical workaholic boomer!”  So sad for this guy to be so enslaved and one dimensional.  But that was not the case, that was not me at all.  I was living a very diverse and active life.  I was running marathons with my running buds and my wife, we had kids in high school and college, we were playing tennis, hiking, skiing and fishing and I never stayed later at work than I had to.  I looked forward to my family and leisure time and by all accounts was a pretty decent dad and husband. While work was a fun hobby it was not my whole life, just a part of it.  And life was good, no midlife crisis for me and no regret I had not done more.  In fact, I felt like a guy who had won the lottery because I was overpaid but not overworked and every area of my life was running pretty smoothly.


But then some things happened.  My mom passed away and my dad began to decline at an increasing rate due to Parkinson’s and that confronted me with the fact that he had worked and saved into his seventies only to be rewarded with a wife who was assaulted by Alzheimer’s and with his own terminal illness.  At the same time I stumbled upon the personal finance, financial independence and retire early blogosphere and podcast genre.  It shocked me to realize that people with only a portion of my net worth were successfully retiring in their thirties and that the math was solid.   Finally, after my dad passed away and my brother and I amicably settled the estate we were both recipients of a sizeable inheritance equivalent to more than I would have been able to save if I worked another ten years. And finally, the family owned corporation I had worked at for 28 years was sold to a Fortune 500 company which put my job at risk and brought drama and politics into what had been a kind and gentle place.


It would have been the perfect time to leave, right?   But no, my plan was still the same, work into my seventies.  I’m an eternal optimist and I saw opportunity and excitement in a changing workplace.  And I was right, at first.  I had some great projects and then earned a big promotion which came with big compensation and I was pretty happy for a couple of years.  And that was when financial independence killed my career.


It has been a struggle, three years after leaving the 9 to 5, to explain to myself what happened.  If I was working for fun instead of for money then why did having more than enough money make it stop being fun?  We are so conditioned to needing money that the very concept of having enough seems hypothetical to most people.  Surveys always show that when millionaires are asked how much money they need to feel comfortable or wealthy they estimate it to be about twice what they currently possess. If they have one million then they say they would feel rich with two million but if they have five million then they say they would need ten million.  We are all naturally greedy misers deep down, apparently.  Yet by immersing myself in the personal finance community and by seeing how my dad died without being able to enjoy what he had saved and invested I finally began to grasp the concept of “enough”.  The compensation of paychecks, bonuses and stock grants lost most of its meaning because I had enough.  And though I had always said I would do my job for free, I realized that was not true.  A big part of the fun was that the hard work was rewarded by something my family needed and they did not need it anymore, we simply  had enough.


Also, I worked for status and relevance.  My job was very public and I was like a small-town mayor in that hundreds of people worked for me and thousands worked with our company so people were nice to  me everywhere I went in my small state.  That’s pretty heady stuff for a guy who was the least cool member of his high school class.  But losing loved ones impresses on your heart that life is very short and that eventually you will leave your job and whatever social status it provided you. Since I was going to have to reinvent myself anyway why not do it now?


Watching how the new corporation worked made it obvious to me that I unless I chose first I would not  have a choice in when I left my job.  Compared to the family I had worked for the Fortune 500 world is a real meat grinder.  When you get into the corporate officer ranks, longevity is highly unlikely.  Executives came and went almost weekly and I was not going to be immune to that.  The corporate mentality is that if anything goes wrong, throw out the tool and get a new one out of the tool box.  And I could see I was a very expendable tool in their hands.  That is really clear in hindsight because I have been gone for less than three years and they have already tried three different people in my old job so far without finding someone they are satisfied with.

These three things changed everything for me at work.  Having enough money and not being driven to earn more, realizing the status was fleeting and would run out someday and realizing that they were going to churn people through my position so I had zero chance of surviving all destroyed my job satisfaction.   Work became surprisingly difficult and for the first time in my life, joyless.  I became uncooperative, unmotivated and increasingly intolerant of absorbing criticism and threatened consequences.  What, they might fire me?  That had been the scariest idea ever for most of my career but now the thought made me smile and struggle to suppress mad giggles or sarcastic retorts.


Financial independence ruined my career.  And I’m so very glad it did.  So I left it behind three years ago.  We parted amicably and the corporation is doing extremely well.  I still occasionally do some consulting for them and enjoy it because it is on my terms and drama free.  My mix of paid and volunteer side gigs and recreational pursuits are satisfying and what has always been a good life is even better now.


What does this mean for you as you pursue financial independence?  Well, it means a lot.  Becoming financially independent will change how you value some of the things that currently motivate you.  And it may change them in ways that make you less employable.  Being FI means you’ve made it, in a real sense you’ve won the lottery.  One of the most quoted lines I see in this space is that being financially independent means that I will only do what I choose to do.  When people say that they are saying in effect that being FI will let them avoid things they do not want to experience, like tedious cubicle jobs.


In a world where much of life follows the carrot and stick model of motivation being FI makes you carrot careless and stick free.  You stop valuing the little pittances they toss to you and you lose your fear of punishment.  In a world where everyone else has a carrot/stick mind you are now a weirdo, a completely unmanageable person.  And the world hates weird.  I saw that personally, once the stick stopped scaring me, then I started to scare my superiors.  Plus the carrot is not so big a motivating treat once you have enough money.  You are now doubly odd and uncontrollable which is something most management systems cannot understand and cannot tolerate.

The changes that financial independence brings are both good and bad.  It makes you unsuitable in an organization that uses fear and reward as the go to motivational techniques.  That’s bad because that represents most of the corporate world today.  The good is that you become more than perfect for anything that has a vision you can internalize.  Being fearless is a pretty awesome feature when you are doing things that matter.


Most of you are on the journey to financial independence and many of you are not in the same kind of corporate environment I was but I think most of you will eventually reach your goals, that is just who you are.  This is written to caution you that there are consequences to targeting financial independence as a goal and some of them may force you to reshape your plans entirely like I did.  I love what I’m doing now but the fact is, achieving financial independence ruined my career plans of working another ten years in my corporate job.


What about you, are you planning on staying at your job after you are financially independent?

Do you think that financial independence might make you unemployable in a carrot and stick world?

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